Despite its proximity to cocaine-producing Andean countries, Chile has not suffered the negative effects of organized crime to the same extent as other nations in the region. In fact, it is one of the safest nations in Latin America.
Since emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile has enacted a series of key reforms that have helped build efficient security forces and an independent judicial system. The Chilean prison system, on the other hand, is still subject to numerous issues, including overcrowding, poor conditions and violence.
Chile’s shared borders with drug-producing and transshipment countries make it vulnerable to the threat of drug trafficking. Indeed, the US State Department has identified Chile as a “significant” transit country for Andean cocaine trafficked to Europe, Africa and Australia.
In 2011, a government minister identified 140 overland drug transit routes into Chile, more than two-thirds of which originated in its northeastern neighbor, Bolivia. Many illicit shipments destined for international markets are moved into Chile across the country’s porous borders before being shipped out through ports along its 6,500-kilometer Pacific coast.
Since emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile has garnered a reputation as one of the most economically developed and stable countries in the region. It has comparatively strong and independent institutions, relatively low levels of corruption and consistently boasts the region’s lowest homicide rate.
These conditions have impeded the rise of powerful homemade crime groups in Chile. However, transnational criminal organizations have been known to operate there, engaging in various activities linked to the drug trade, human smuggling and other criminal enterprises.
Over the past decade, Chile has become a key transshipment country for drugs, particularly cocaine. And recent reports suggest drug trafficking in Chile is on the rise.
Trafficking into the country is mostly handled by Bolivian and Peruvian organizations, at times in collaboration with local groups. Once in the country, drugs are typically sold by street gangs — many of which operate in Santiago, the capital and largest city — or they are shipped abroad to foreign markets.
In addition to serving as a transshipment point for cocaine, the discovery of drug processing laboratories in Chile in recent years suggests the country’s role in producing the drug might be growing. Chile is a major regional supplier of precursor chemicals used in drug production.
Due in part to its robust economy, Chile has developed a substantial domestic drug consumption market. A pair of anti-drug operations in 2014 uncovered huge loads of cocaine apparently destined for the domestic market, suggesting domestic demand for the drug could be growing. Recent research indicates that youth drug use may be on the rise.
Chile also has a sizeable domestic market for marijuana, which has been targeted by crime groups from Paraguay — South America’s main producer of marijuana — as well as Colombia, the source of a potent and lucrative type of marijuana known as “cripy.”
Chilean politicians introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana cultivation for medicinal purposes in 2012. In 2014, Chile became the first country in Latin America to allow medical marijuana cultivation. The following year, the country began taking steps to decriminalize recreational marijuana use.
Chile is also a hotbed for human smuggling and trafficking, although the problem is not as pronounced there as it is in other countries.
Following the introduction of anti-human trafficking legislation in 2011, crime groups have proven resourceful in adapting to shifting circumstances. Chile’s relative safety and stability have made it an attractive destination for migrants from across the region, and multinational criminal networks have arisen to meet the demand for human smuggling services. Some of these networks victimize their clients, forcing them into situations of sexual slavery or forced labor.
Chile’s strong and relatively stable economy has also made it an attractive money laundering locale.
Other criminal activities that have been observed in Chile in recent years include large-scale armed robberies; certain forms of cyber crime, including information theft; and contraband cigarette trafficking, which has reportedly expanded massively since 2012.
Chile does not have any major homegrown crime groups with an international presence. However, criminal organizations based in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and other nearby countries have engaged in a variety of illicit activities in the country.
International drug trafficking is mostly handled by Bolivian and Peruvian groups who sometimes collaborate with local organizations. European organized crime groups have also been linked to the country’s drug trade.
The capital city Santiago is home to the majority of the country’s street gangs. These usually operate in poor and neglected neighborhoods, engaging in petty drug dealing and other small-time crimes. According to a 2012 investigation, gangs controlled dozens of neighborhoods in Santiago.
Chile’s two main public security bodies are the Carabineros, a national militarized police force formerly under the command of the Defense Ministry, but managed by the Interior Ministry since 2011, and the Chilean Investigative Police (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile – PDI), a civilian police force responsible for investigating crimes, including drug trafficking and organized crime. Both the Carabineros and the PDI have internal intelligence agencies, as do Chile’s army, navy and air force. Chile’s main intelligence body is the National Intelligence Agency (Agencia Nacional de Inteligencia – ANI).
Chile’s police and military have long ranked among the most trusted security forces in Latin America. Nonetheless, Chile’s security forces have faced allegations of involvement in human rights abuses, such as excessive use of force and unlawful killings. Chile’s military courts handle all cases of alleged human rights violations committed by security forces, including the Carabineros police. According to human rights organizations, trials in these courts lack “independence and impartiality” and “many legitimate complaints” are dismissed.
Corruption has also been a problem. For example, several Carabineros officers were arrested in 2013 for their alleged involvement in smuggling marijuana from Bolivia into Chile, leading to the firing of the anti-narcotics chief. In 2017, the Carabineros were implicated in a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal, which a Chilean prosecutor called “the biggest embezzlement in the history of Chile.”
Chile’s security forces work with several international partners. The country cooperates with the United States on security issues predominantly related to drug trafficking, and with Bolivia on counternarcotics operations on the countries’ shared border. The Chilean military also works closely with Argentina and has a joint force trained in humanitarian work.
Chile’s federal courts system is overseen by the Justice Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia) and headed by the Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes, as well as managing the country’s witness protection program. Regional courts hear criminal cases, and a Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría Penal Pública) provides free representation to the accused.
Compared to others in the region, Chile’s judicial system is widely perceived to be efficient, independent and not corrupt. The World Economic Forum ranked Chile 37th out of 144 countries for judicial independence in 2017. However, a 2014 survey of Chilean citizens found that only 37 percent of respondents said they had confidence in the justice system, ranking it lower than most other institutions in the country including the security forces, the government and the press.
Chile’s prison system, administered by the Gendarmerie (Gendarmería de Chile – GENCHI), suffers from numerous issues. Between 2000 and 2010, the inmate population increased by over 50 percent. As of September 2013, the prisons stood at 110 percent of capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
In addition to overcrowding, Chile’s prisons have been criticized by the US State Department for their poor conditions, antiquated infrastructure and widespread violence, both among inmates and by the authorities.